Whenever I meet someone new and get talking to them, I find there's one question I'm often asked about my identity that's been fashionable long before the current obsession with identity politics. In fact, I've been asked it for as long as I can remember. The question usually arises when I'm outside the comfort zone of my own hometown and community and goes something like this. 'So, where are you from?'. I answer "Luton, a town about 30 miles north of London", hoping the conversation can then quickly move on to what we have in common now that it's been established that I'm British, was born here and have lived here my whole life. I've never known any other country that I would call my home. However, I then get a slightly puzzled look, only to be prodded on as though I need help like a small child to help me find the right answer, 'no, I mean where are you properly/really from'? I then say Kashmir, though I never felt that was the answer I wanted to give. I replied with that answer because it makes it easier for the one questioning me to compartmentalise my identity. For them I tick the box 'other'.
I find such a perspective on identity intriguing to say the least. Why is that such people aren't content with the answer I just gave? Could it be something about the idea of Britishness? Or does it say more about the assumption that they hold about ethnic minorities having divided loyalties and not feeling at home in the UK?
The question about what it means to be 'British' took an interesting turn last week, following the publication of the Aurora Humanitarian Index public opinion survey which found that 56% of Brits questioned, felt UK culture was under threat from ethnic minorities. Ponder that for a moment. This wasn't the usual scaremongering we hear about immigrants taking our jobs. No, this was more than simply economic anxiety. It is a false belief in the notion of "Britishness", one rooted in nostalgia, that defines British culture according to its sense of purity and superiority. Is it little wonder then that with such a notion of what it means to be British, that I get asked 'where are you properly from' when I answer I'm British too.
At the heart of this worrying notion of Britishness is the idea of British culture as being "white". To a son of immigrants like me it says that try as much as you like to integrate, but you'll always be seen as the "other". So why all the mantra demanding minorities do more to integrate, if by default they'll always be excluded and seen as a threat, simply because of their skin colour and ethnic background. Such notions of a pure British culture are breathtakingly ironic. How exactly do we define British culture? The idea that every British person shares in exactly the same cultural practices and that they all agree on the defining features that make up British culture, is simply untrue. Even more ironically the myths that we all love to rally around as being determining characteristics of British culture aren't British in the first place. Take St George for example, the patron saint of England. It's conveniently overlooked that he was born in what is now Turkey.
The assumption that ethnic minorities have 'divided' loyalties is another factor in doubting the Britishness of individuals. For a while now immigrants, especially second and third generation immigrants from Muslim backgrounds, have been viewed as 'suspect communities', as a 5th column that we can't really trust. But rather than seeking to compartmentalise people's complex identities into a single affiliation, some of whom no doubt through family and history have links to other parts of the world, wouldn't it make sense to view their diversity as something to be celebrated rather than a threat? People with complex identities have the ability to act as bridges between different communities and cultures, if only we would allow them, rather than screaming 'choose a side'.
If we wish to improve cohesion and integration, we need a radically different view about what it means to be British. It's about time those from ethnic minority backgrounds were not viewed with a gaze that seeks to imprison them within narrow allegiances.